Don’t be a drill sergeant!

I recently read two different pieces about horse learning/training that made a startling contrast to each other.  As I read the two pieces, it was obvious to me which was horse-centric and considerate – yet the other piece was written by a wildly successful trainer.  I am continually puzzled by how many people are taken in by today’s “gurus” whose advice, to my mind, is so obviously anti-horse.  Yet, I am well aware that our industry is now filled with many people who came to horses late in life, and who believe that the wildly popular trainers must, by definition, be right.  I write this piece in the hope that it will reach at least one person who is seeking a better understanding of their equine partner, and help them avoid a bad path.

Let me start with the positive piece.  (Make no mistake, in this there is a clear right and wrong, and I feel no need to be “objective” in my writing of this piece.)  The Horse magazine’s website featured a story on how horses learn.  It offered information and quotes from behavioral scientists.  Among those, was this:

“Horses need a calm, low-stress environment for optimum learning.  In a recent study, Léa Lansade, PhD, of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, showed that horses that were stressed … before or after training did not perform as well as unstressed horses when tested on that lesson a few days later.”

This has been proven in human learning as well.  If the brain is stressed, by fear or pressure, the portion of the brain that governs learning is shut down.  Think about it – when you’ve been in a stressful situation, were you in a good place to learn?  Many of us freeze in a test or performance on something we do easily while in the comfort of our own home.

Now, let’s contrast that to this statement:

“Using one rein at a time to direct him, you’ll work the horse hard hustling his feet and constantly making him change directions.  The more you change directions, the more he’ll use the thinking side of his brain.”

This is from a column by Clinton Anderson on how to make your horse less arena-sour.  The point is to make the horse work hard outside the arena, so he wants to go in.  More on that in a moment – for now, think about the idea that the harder you harass your horse, the more “the thinking side of his brain” engages.  How does that fit with the scientific study showing that stressed horses had a harder time remembering a behavior?

Clinton’s description calls to mind clips of football or bootcamp drills.  “Hustle, hustle, hustle!”  Are those drills aimed at improving the subjects deep thinking or learning?  Absolutely not!  Those drills are aimed at two things – physical fitness/agility and absolute obedience to orders.  drill-sergeant“Sir, yes sir!”

There may be other training a soldier goes through to develop strategic thinking – but that comes later, and is done in a different atmosphere.  No, in boot camp they are training soldiers to have immediate and unquestioning obedience.

Now, some may argue that our horses should have immediate and unquestioning obedience – I counter that the vast majority of horses have been bred to be rather compliant creatures.  They would not have served us in all the capacities they have, nor endured the torment they have, without being so.  Which horse would you breed – the one who performed all the tasks you asked, or the one who fought you through every moment of your time together?  So, it only needs for you to clearly communicate your intent, and make it comfortable to do what is asked.

Now, Clinton’s approach to the arena-sour horse does use the concept of negative reinforcement – pressure is applied while outside of the arena, and released when in the arena.  It’s close enough to “valid” in this way that he can use the verbiage to his advantage, sounding more valid than it actually is.  However, he is far from an appropriate use of negative reinforcement (actually, not even in the right neighborhood).

First, there is nothing wrong with negative reinforcement – it has nothing to do with punishment or pain, and has everything to do with riding the horse.  You squeeze your legs, the horse moves forward, you release your legs – welcome to negative reinforcement!  You applied a pressure, the horse responded appropriately, and you released the pressure.  Negative simply means “to remove something” in this context.

Now, back to Clinton.  Let’s take another quote:

“In the beginning, you might only be able to bring the horse within 90 feet of the arena, which is normal. … When you let the horse rest, drape the reins down his neck and dare him to move.  If he wants to move, let him.  Take him back to where you were working him and hustle his feet again.”

So, let me clarify this – you cannot get your horse into the arena, so you hustle his feet outside, then ride as close to the arena as you can get, allowing him to rest.  If he dares to move his feet, apparently in any direction, you turn back around and hustle some more. Clinton does not indicate that it is movement away from the arena that gets this response, only that it is any movement. If you are facing the arena, and your horse dares to move, he is likely moving in the direction of the arena in his first step – so you have just answered the very thing you would want him to do by increasing the pressure!

So, how would I address this problem?  If your horse is arena sour, it’s likely that he’s either bored, or the arena presents situations of pain or extreme pressure.  I’ve rarely had this problem, but when I do it’s usually been for the first reason.  If my horse indicates he doesn’t want to go to the arena, I either take that day to say “Fine, we won’t work in the arena today!”; or, I decide to do something in the arena that I know the horse enjoys – like poles or jumps.  Typically that resolves the issue, and it does not repeat.

If it’s the issue of pressure or pain, as it was with Tally at the trainer’s, then you need to be honest enough to recognize it and make a change.  Further torture of the horse only leads to a shutdown horse.  If you prefer absolute and instant obedience, then please buy a bicycle!

For those who prefer a dialog, and wish to develop a partnership, please take a few moments to read The Horse magazine’s article.  If you like it, do horses everywhere a favor and pass it along to other riders you know.

Be good to your horses!



5 thoughts on “Don’t be a drill sergeant!

  1. Great perspective, thanks. For me the articles represent the short cut vs the long patient route… It all depends on the long lasting outcome you would like to achieve (I prefer the patient, often painstaking, sometimes a bit boring, yet long term better route). Have a read through my article ‘booh’ on, about passing the scary corner, could add some interesting insights too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Rachel. I completely agree that the slow route is the best … actually, the only appropriate route. What’s amazing is that it can be a slow, sometimes boring slog … until things come together … then it’s magic! Love your blog, but have to catch up on your posts – have been slammed at work. Happy riding!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh thank you for posting this. I DO hope it reaches someone who is open to make a turnaround.
    It’s all so tiring, just simly looking at some of the stuff some of these fake “trainers” write.
    I’ve stopped reading anything like it years ago. It’s like they have decided each horse must be dominated, like some beast of a dog.

    And they know no other way…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is exhausting, Elinor! I stopped reading them as well … but these days (maybe it’s my age), I sometimes just have to speak out. I’m just glad there are people reading it! 🙂


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